Are Video Games A Waste Of Time?

So a few months back, I independently created a sort of ‘fan made’ episode of BBC World Service’s award winning podcast, The Inquiry. It was driven by my love of the podcast format, the inviting question and four witness analysis, as well as my enthusiasm for esports, and the sense that this phenomenal movement is somehow being overlooked by the mainstream media.

The question I chose at that time was ‘How do you become a professional video gamer?’ – and I sought to use that as a peg to introduce a new audience to the concept of esports, as well as exploring and explaining the many different facets that are involved in creating a huge sporting scene from what is essentially ‘just’ video game playing.

I finished it with brilliant and, in my view, fascinating contributions from ‘witnesses’ across the esports scene, including ESL’s Richard Simms, Team Liquid’s Mike Milanov, 343 Industries’ Frank O’Connor, and Halo 4 Global Champion and Halo 5 pro-player Aaron ‘Ace’ Elam.

BBC World Service weren’t as interested in the esports angle as they were in the subject of video games more broadly, but they liked the brazen pitch I made, and invited me to join them in producing an episode discussing the value of video gaming to society – if indeed there is any.

And so, I present you with Take 2. This is my second (but importantly actually official) The Inquiry podcast. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csv1bv

Stand aside Evil, I won’t be as gentle! Dragon Age II under (too) close scrutiny.

Just read an article over at IGN360 about Dragon Age II and it’s “improvements” and “updates”. I’m a little dismayed to tell you the honest truth. If you can’t be bothered to read their whole article (I don’t blame you – read mine instead), the gist of it is that the sequel to the acclaimed Role Playing Game (RPG) has been tweaked to look considerably better on consoles “especially”. “Especially” in that context means, ‘but dumbed down for PC’. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

– The necessity and skilled usage of the pause button has diminished it seems, as individual enemies ‘go down fairly easily’.

– Zooming out has been limited (even further) than in the original game. To the extent that you can’t zoom out beyond the ceiling of the room you are in! I think I feel sick.

In fact, this line from the IGN article pretty much sums up the changes to Dragon Age II, and it doesn’t appeal to me for obvious reasons:

It seems as though BioWare is taking Origins, which was super nerdy and very specifically targeted players like me, and giving it a graphical facelift so it can appeal to a wider crowd.

A wider crowd. Ach, what tasteless words. What that means is, they’ve stripped it of all complexity and cult attraction and all but blockbusterised it. I know that’s not a word, but come on! In the immortal words of Ricky Gervais, “Fuck the crowd, most of them are idiots.” He couldn’t be more right. The problem is, most of them are idiots with wallets, and BioWare, like every business since time itself, is all about the money.

Anti-capitalist rant aside, I am absolutely gutted about the lack of zoom out function. The main reason I loved DA: Origins was that it could be played in the style of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. All RPGs these days are way too close up and, for lack of a better word, 3D. (I’ve talked about how much I hate that before…) It was a downhill trend which started (I think) with Neverwinter Nights. Still great, but lacking.

I’m one of those gamers who plays for the compelling storyline, the spectacular magic and mystery, the ludicrously expansive side quests. Nobody cares if there’s a little more glass on the ceiling chandeliers, or if the blood splatter on your character’s face has increased since the last gory battle. Hell, at least give us the option to look on from a distance.

I want sorcery and adventure and a birds eye view. In that order. And while you’re at it BioWare, let us string the commands together like the old days. I want to prove my mastery by casting the perfect killer combo before my enemy has incanted their first spell. Sure, Dragon Age II will do for now, of course, but when you’ve created a game as thorough as Baldur’s Gate again then you’ll really have my attention.

Yup, Minsc and Boo stand ready…

As the soul slides from the Xbox, I examine the alternatives

I’ve been an Xbox fanboy (or fanboi to use the colloquial) for the vast majority of my life. Maybe the marketing campaign Microsoft ran throughout the 90s and 00s got me jumpin’ (the very same campaign that they continue to run – “jump in!”); or maybe the flashing green rings around the on button (I didn’t know the red rings denoted ‘Death’ until recently) drew my attention; or could it have been the giant X that was sprawled boldly across the top of the original console (we all know that X is a key letter used to denote so many exciting things…) More likely my obsession could be summed up much more simply than all of the above: HALO.

Yes, Halo reigned supreme among online multiplayer FPS for a long time (I state “online multiplayer” because nothing has ever come close to the Half Life series as a straight FPS franchise). Halo still does reign on Xbox live, even compared to the likes of CoD, although Reach was a step backwards in many ways from Halo 3. However, now that that fantastic world of Humans, Elites, and Floods worse than Brisbane has drawn to a close, or at least reached an optimum peak of player enjoyment, I find myself looking at the alternative gaming options available.

It should go without saying that little challenges the PC for power, graphics etc. It’s still my platform of choice for RPGs (although I deviate for Mass Effect), and for a long time was almost my sole gaming platform whilst I played WoW. I’m not typing that out in full… Also, recently the iPhone has really come into it’s own as a gaming solution. It provides a quick fix that you can score during a toilet break, or while you’re waiting for a bus/ train or other delayed public transport. Initially I was sceptical of the iPhone has a gaming device, but games such as Osmos, Plants Vs Zombies, GeoDefense and Spirit soon changed my mind. It’s just a different style of gaming, and one to be embraced.

Likewise, I was dubious when the Wii, The PS Move and the Kinect for 360 tried to put action, I mean literal, physical action, in to gaming. It has always been a passive hobby. RSI was just an occupational hazard, and hardcore gamers were proud to risk it. This motion gaming tech seemed to trivialise gaming, pitched it to the wrong people. Hardcore gaming was for an elite, the part of society that didn’t want to get involved in the social mix, who were often actually outcast from the social mix anyway. To attract the average consumer to consoles seemed like heresy. It’s still seen as such by an obstinate few. I am not one. As with the iPhone, I see that motion gaming has introduced a different way to experience technology. Indeed, I would say that my Kinect isn’t really about gaming at all at the minute, but is instead a personal trainer – a gym that even I will frequent regularly. That can only be a good thing.

If I’m honest, against Microsoft, who had the might of Bungie at their beck and call, Nintendo and Sony had never even received a second glance from me. I’m afraid Nintendo are now definitely out of the competition (although I am almightily intrigued by their specless 3D), but Sony might just be worming their PS3 up alongside the Xbox 360. Nowadays I have to think practically. That means: value for money vs media solutions vs gaming enjoyment. There are several things to note here:

Online. PS3 is free for online gamers whilst Xbox live is extortionately priced and Microsoft seem to be messing with their pricing all too regularly. Online gaming is essential in this day and age where the majority of video games either provide multiplayer or use it as their primary selling point (Halo being a prime example).

Blu-ray. It is a joke that even after a redesign, and re-release, the 360 still lacks this technology that has been available on the competition since the PS3 first hit the shelves. Blu-ray HD technology could do so much for the 360 both in terms of games and films and there is no excuse for it to still lack the facility.

Bluetooth. While we’re on Blu things, yet another lacking feature for the 360 is bluetooth compatibility which has the potential to open up the console to a myriad of new devices and technology.

BBC iPlayer/ ITV Player/ 4oD/ FIVE Demand/ Love Film. Microsoft fairly recently released a statement which used words to the effect that, because iPlayer is free, and the BBC wouldn’t agree to Microsoft only providing access to it to Xbox Live GOLD subscribers, it wouldn’t be available at all. Money-grabbing scum. That alone is enough to make you look elsewhere. The 360 also doesn’t have any of the other TV catchup or rental services mentioned above, aside from Sky on Demand (which costs £10 monthly and sucks. Trust me. Been there, done that, got a big bill).
What should be clear from this post, is that whilst consoles used to be defined as “gaming solutions”, they are now so much more than that. The whole ‘Media Center’ hype that Bill Gates tried to stir up a few years ago has actually taken ahold now, and as they say, the proof is in the pudding. The pudding being that I use my Xbox 360 to watch films and workout as much I watch my blu-ray player, and I would watch it more if it’s media playback was vastly improved. Which is where my sudden interest in the PS3 derives from. The PS3 has Media capabilities that slam the 360 in to the ground. You only need to see a video of each side by side and it’s easy to see which has the slicker interface, and faster, more user friendly compatibility with other home tech devices. If only it was possible to achieve the best of both worlds. Aside from owning both it’s definitely not and won’t be for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, yes, I think I’m adding the PS3 to a very long list of desirable objects that I intend to one day afford and buy, below the iPhone 4, the iPad, some sick Sennheiser Wireless Headphones I’ve been admiring for sometime and a shit load of Blu-ray dvds. Bah, being an attentive consumer is so much effort…

Dear IGN: a few thoughts regarding Game Changer

Dear IGN,

I didn’t want to enter – I just wanted to express how unbelievably stingy and ungrateful the Terms and Conditions of your competition are. Not only does the Game Changer website offer no indication of what the awful prize is (except for in the ‘small print’ T&Cs), the four stage competition demands a hell of a lot of work for nigh on fuck all compensation. Sure – you claim to offer a helping hand for those struggling to worm their way in to the film and video game industry, but frankly this seems like nothing more than a jumped up PR stunt.

The prize for this painstakingly epic tournament is just three instances of exposure on your website, for which you offer no payment and in fact, declare that “entrants’ participation will be at their own cost.” You also mention that participants will take part in challenges in London! That’s really exciting news, and I can think of nowhere I’d rather spend all of my money while I make a futile grab at a future career in your company…

Let me lay this out clearly: you are hosting a competition with no financial or material prize, that will cost participants time, immense effort and money? Does this strike you as something you would enter?

As one of the biggest online video game sites, one would expect that you might offer up….oooo, I don’t know…a free game? A free console? There are competitions to which entrants must simply enter their name that offer much more satisfying rewards than yours. To be honest, your ‘prize’ appears to be little more than a massive, egotistical pat on the back for yourselves, that you are generously offering the humble layman the opportunity to appear, briefly, on your prestigious website. Great. You pompous arses.

Oh, and finally, if the presenter in your Game Changer promotional video is anything to go by, then standards are evidently not being set very high. You really are in dire need of some new talent. So get off your high horse, think up some original prizes, and pitch us something worth buying in to. Until then, kindly remove the Pop Factor X Idol banner from your homepage.

Yours sincerely,

yada yada yada…

More E3 Rambling

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAw9MrIW7JM[/youtube]

Why don’t game studios choose players who have some skill to showcase their incredible new games? As a friend of mine pointed out, the spokesman who presented Halo: Reach made a phenomenal game sound actually quite bland. Equally, when they played the demo of Reach, whoever was at the controls had terrible aim and terrible tactics, assault rifle from a distance?? Is there a more nub approach? If they really want to reach out to their ‘hardcore’ gaming fans, maybe they should show the games being played at their best.

Other than the incredible technology revealed by Nintendo in their spec-less 3DS and Valve’s Portal 2, I don’t think I was particularly blown away by this years E3. RAGE seems to be totally ribbing on Borderlands, AC: Brotherhood looked like more of the same – Ghost Recon: Future Soldier had some sweet gameplay, but not sure I’d pick it up, and a lot of the other much anticipated titles were less novel than I’d hoped. What we need is a developer to really blow everyone out of the water with a game that’s just totally unlike anything we’ve seen before – I blame sequels.

Too many sequels spoil the broth. Gaming Studios and Hollywood both need to learn that people love originality. The best games throughout history have been original concepts. I wish producers would just quit playing it safe, show us they’ve got some balls and take some exciting risks. I’d have a lot more respect for the industry. Anyone agree?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKPqRcAw7Hg[/youtube]

Dead Space 2

Here’s another exciting trailer from E3 – Dead Space 2. The original was phenomenal, offering up a completely fresh take on the survival horror genre. This looks very similar to the first game, with some of the same classic weapons but a few new special abilities. From what we can see, the environment seems to look like a cross between Quake 3 corridors and Prince of Persia artwork. Combat seems to have stepped up the pace, hurling more enemies at you in one go. Hopefully they’re not overdoing the ‘quicktime’ feature, where you hammer a key rapidly in order to achieve something in game. For example, in the clip, Isaac has to hammer X to get rid of the little mutant freaks, and he also hammers X to hold on when the windows shatter and zero gravity ensues. This has been used a lot in other games to mixed reception, but personally, I’m not a fan at all. Anyway, without further ado, enjoy the trailer and fingers crossed the real thing is as good as we’re all hoping it will be.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiBjEtqXttk[/youtube]

Portal 2 at E3

Wow. Valve never fail to take my breath away. The first step I took in City 17 changed my attitude towards gaming forever, and the franchise they started with Half Life is still praised as one of the most progressive in gaming. Portal appeared with The Orange Box back in 2007 and in it’s brief 8 hour play time, achieved more than hundreds of games have done since. Essentially a mind-bending puzzle game, the player is given a ‘portal gun’ and moves through a number of test chambers utilising both portals and world objects to cross rooms and reach the exits. It sounds considerably simpler than it is, and there lies it’s ingenuity. The player must consider momentum, gravity and angles, not to mention combat a variety of obstacles, some hostile and aggressive which block their path. Include a fantastically original storyline that even subtly connects other titles by Valve, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable landmark in video gaming.

Now, 3 years on, Valve have showcased Portal 2 at this years exciting E3 conference and here are three of the phenomenally exciting trailers they presented. Hopefully you’ll be as awed as I am!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5THiN8szSKM[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq2mZoKkqMw[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGlyQmmvj0w[/youtube]

Halo 3: ODST

I’m kicking off this new category with a review of ODST, perhaps jumping on the pre-release hype of Halo: Reach, due to fall Spring 2011. So if you’ve not played this game, you still have a good 8 months to familiarise yourself! First published Sept 23rd 2009, Ciao.

Halo 3: ODST has proved that Bungie can do it again and again without losing any of their flare or the franchise’s value. The Halo series has become so elevated in computer game culture that it has a multi-million strong fanbase lapping up everything and anything related to it, from merchandise to collector’s edition boxsets selling at £60! How do they do it? How can game developers Bungie continue to churn out popular, original and strong story based material with such finesse? Because there is no denying it, having played Halo 3: ODST the past few days, it is already one of the best games I have ever played.

The graphics are not groundbreaking for the most part (although there are sequences which take your breath away). It seems to be running on the same Halo 3 engine with perhaps slightly more intricate detail. The available weaponry is almost the same as the previous game with a few slight modifications: more grenades than in the past, the ability to wield the same pistol as in the original Halo game (‘Combat Evolved’), a flamethrower etc. Health works in a similar fashion, again tweaked slightly – you have a certain amount of stamina (basic damage resistance) before you start losing actual health. Your screen flashes red to warn you when this is going to happen. Night vision adds a new visual element to gameplay but doesn’t really change the style of play. To be honest, in all these areas it scores highly, but no better than a lot of other games that achieve the same things. So where does it gain points?

Story line. The Halo story line has always been phenomenal and this game portrays a different angle to the fight against the Covenant. The style in which the story is portrayed to the gamer is unique I think as well. Essentially you are an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODST Unit) who wanders the streets of New Mombasa trying to establish details regarding the rest of your crew; their whereabouts or what happened to them. Each time you discover a clue, they are all located in different areas of New Mombasa you are transported in to a playable flashback sequence which forms the basis of each new mission. It may sound a little complex – it isn’t.

Emotion. This might not be something you expect when playing a game, to be moved, to experience thrills, fear, tension, and sadness, but playing ODST I found myself on the edge of my seat, shouting aloud, laughing at the marines as they banter with one another, and from such highs, to feeling a profound sense of melancholy as your character, the Rookie uncovers the tragic fate of one of his crew members amidst the barely lit, neon darkness of the futuristic city, New Mombasa.

Soundtrack. Award winning composer Martin O’Donnell scores the beautifully eerie, sweeping soundscapes that accompany you on your adventures in ODST. To my mind, without his incredibly dramatic compositions Halo would not have the following or the reputation it enjoys today. From pumping, distorted guitar driven rock to fuel your adrenaline in battle sequences, to haunting, lyrical melodies as you explore the dark streets, constantly unaware of what awaits around the next corner or watching you from a close rooftop, O’Donnell has the music to match the occasion. I own the soundtracks to the series independently of the games because the caliber of music is so high.

Multiplayer and online experience. Naturally, xbox live and Halo go hand in hand. Rarely if ever has there been a game with so many players constantly playing. Halo 3 was release back in 2007 and is still one of the most popular games to be played over xbox live. If my gaming experience is anything to go by, ODST won’t let the fanbase down. In addition to a tonne of new maps (3 brand new, but since Halo 3’s original release about 9 new maps have been added), a new combat mode has been introduced named Firefight. It works similarly to Gears of War 2’s ‘Horde’ mode, pitting you and up to three other comrades against an onslaught of foes, wave after wave with the basic aim of surviving for as long as possible as the difficulty level increases.

I really feel ODST has raised the bar once again for the standard of First Person Shooters and story telling through video games. It’s well scripted, solidly structured and thoroughly produced to ensure that the niggly little details that so frequently plague it’s competitors are nowhere to be seen here. Another fantastic game from the guys at Bungie Studios. I look forward to Halo: Reach (Falls 2010) but don’t make it too soon – I want to be able to fully enjoy all that ODST has to offer – a great deal.

ODST lands with a £40 price tag as of release, with the option of a collector’s edition (including a unique ODST controller and preliminary access to the Multiplayer Beta of Halo: Reach in 2010) priced at £60.